What were you doing on July 5, 1994? That's the day -- 25 years ago this Friday -- Jeff Bezos first incorporated the company that went on to become Amazon.    

By now, the official story is well-known: Bezos left his job at a New York hedge fund, drove across country with his then-wife, MacKenzie, and launched from a Seattle garage.

Almost everything in life seems inevitable in retrospect, but this was a radical, crazy idea at the time. 

So for the 25th anniversary of Amazon (nee Cadabra), here are 12 fast facts about what the world looked like on July 5, 1994, that put it all in perspective.

1. Almost nobody had internet access.

If you're old enough, you can admit it: You probably didn't even use the internet in 1994. Only 0.447 percent of the world had access. But that figure was growing exponentially. A year before, it had been 0.252 percent; by 1995, it would be 0.777 percent.

2. And access was slow and costly.

If you did have internet access, you probably had it through school or work. If you had it at home, you were likely paying a company like AOL by the hour: $19.95 for five hours, and then $3 an hour afterward.

(Fun fact: The idea of Cyber Monday, the big online shopping day, originated because it was the first day after the Thanksgiving holiday when people went back to work and had good internet access again.)

3. But that's OK because websites were horrible.

I'm not just talking about things like Geocities, which didn't launch for another year. Here, you can find some big tech companies' contemporary websites archived: Apple (from 1997; nothing earlier survives), Microsoft (1994), and Yahoo (1996). 

4. 3.5-inch disks were still a thing.

It makes sense then: The primary way people moved data from one computer to another in July 1994? The "sneakernet," which was slang for copying files to a 1.44 MB diskette, and physically moving it from one computer to another.

5. Ads barely existed.

The first spam emails had been sent only a month before. (The good news was that banner ads wouldn't be invented for another few months.)

6. Domain names were free.

I don't just mean that they were available. If you'd had the foresight, you could apparently still register any name for free in 1994. (That changed in 1995.)

7. Browsers were nothing.

There were web browsers obviously, and Mosaic was a technological milestone. But almost nothing you use today was around then. The first Netscape browser launched in November 1994.

8. You had to mail a check.

There was no easy way to transfer money online. In fact, when eBay launched more than a year later -- in September 1995 -- buyers who won auctions would have to physically write a check and send it in the mail before they could get their winning item.

9. A top news site had been built for $120.

An employee of The Economist, apparently fed up that his company had never built a website, simply did it on his own. It cost him $120. Around the same time, MTV realized that one of its ex-VJs had been given permission to launch an MTV website on his own; the company was in the middle of a battle to try to get it back.

10. History was happening.

Stepping back from the web: The tunnel beneath the English Channel had just opened, O.J. Simpson had just run from the cops, Nelson Mandela had just become president of South Africa, Microsoft had just announced it would stop selling MS-DOS, and Major League Baseball players were about to go on strike (canceling the World Series).

11. The White House didn't have a website.

Government was slow to the party, which is especially odd since the internet was created by the government. The White House's website finally launched in November 1994. (The late senator Ted Kennedy's site went live in June 1994, though.)

12. Nobody was doing this stuff.

Almost none of the people we think of as current internet icons were doing anything yet. Mark Zuckerberg had just turned 10. Jack Dorsey was in high school. Evan Spiegel, future co-founder of SnapChat, has just turned 4.

Moreover, Elon Musk wouldn't graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and start his first company for another three years. And it would also be three years more before Steve Jobs returned to head Apple for the second time.

13. OK, there were some pioneering exceptions.

They say pioneers get slaughtered and settlers prosper. In fact, there was already one big book retailer online before Amazon: Powells.com. And Pizza Hut had launched a way to order pizza online.

It's not clear how many people actually used either site, and the numbers were surely very small by 2019 standards. But credit for being first -- or at least early -- goes to them.
 

Published on: Jul 3, 2019
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